Blogger-Bashing Barnet Seeks Secret StatePosted on November 11, 2011
The ever-tenacious David Hencke has a report of some worrying attempts by Barnet Council to muzzle local bloggers.
Wasting goodness knows how much taxpayers’ money, the local authority has now twice tried to secure rulings that would mean in effect that no blogger may write about public officials.
A local blogger, Mr Mustard, identified a £50,000-a-year (plus perks) non-job, Barnet’s new “Change and Innovation Manager“. He was doing a good public service by spotting a wasteful post stuffed full of management-speak twaddle – taking up the charge much as the TaxPayers’ Alliance has encouraged people to do for some years now.
To properly investigate how this money was being spent, Mr Mustard investigated the public blog of the person appointed to the post – a Jonathan Tunde-Wright. This was perfectly reasonable – particularly when it turns out Mr Tunde-Wright appears to be a big fan of management mantras, such as:
I am persuaded that organisational culture eats strategy for breakfast.
All in a day’s work for a blogger scrutinising public spending. But that’s not how Barnet Council saw it.
Barnet have now twice tried to secure a ruling from the Information Commissioner that Mr Mustard was in breach of the Data Protection Act by daring to blog about someone who was not part of his own family or household. If successful, they could have had him slapped with a £5,000 fine – and, of course, silenced.
Mercifully, the ICO ruled against Barnet both times – but the fact they even tried to go down this route is disturbibg.
On the surface this attempt to silence a blogger in this way is pure aggression and censorship from a public body. They wanted to shut him up regardless of the fundamental right to free speech or the entirely positive influence of bloggers and the transparency agenda because they thought it would be better that way for Barnet Council.
Look deeper than that and it gets more concerning. Numerous times in my years at the TPA we encountered attempts by public bodies to draw a false distinction between public roles and the people who occupy them. We could, we were told, talk about a job title and the associated salary, but criticising the actual public servant was not allowed.
During the compilation of the annual Public Sector and Town Hall Rich Lists we regularly got FOI responses that refused to name even a council’s Chief Executive. Tellingly, Tunde-Wright repeats this mantra in David Hencke’s article:
I also do feel that by going beyond the Post to naming the Post Holder, referencing my personal blog and making particular comments, the said blogger may have crossed the line and placed myself and my family in this uncomfortable place of feeling harassed online.
This is a pernicious attack on transparency and accountability. The Post and the Post Holder should be open to scrutiny by the public who fund both of them. The existence of a job is only one element of public spending and administration – how well the person who holds the post actually does the job is equally important.
Barnet’s argument effectively means individual incompetence or other personal failings would be beyond the realm of public scrutiny. It would be like saying no-one could cover the Liam Fox scandal because talking about him as an individual was beyond the pale, and as everyone would accept the need for a Defence Secretary then he should have stayed in post.
It is good that the ICO was robust in defence of the free speech of bloggers – but appalling that a local authority would think public scrutiny is a bad thing and then try to use legal intimidation funded by taxpayers to silence their critics.
We clearly still have a long way to go until we have a proper transparency culture.
Tags: Barnet Council, Bloggers, Blogging, Council Tax, David Hencke, FOI, Jonathan Tunde-Wright, Local Government, Mr Mustard, Non-jobs, opinion, Politics, public spending, Secrecy, TaxPayers' Alliance, Transparency